Space, Controversial Toys, and Getting Rid of Stuff

This photo symbolizes the importance of experience and outside play over having stuff (okay, not really. It's a cute photo of my daughter feeding ducks).
This photo symbolizes the importance of experience and outside play over having stuff (okay, not really. It’s a cute photo of my daughter feeding ducks).

My mother is an enthusiastic thrift store shopper and an even more enthusiastic grandma. Put those together and what have you got? Bibbidy-bobbidy, bibbidy-bobbidy, bibbidy-bobbidy… TOYS! (Can you tell I’ve been watching Cinderella lately?)

Mom is very good at finding awesome stuff at great prices. Thrift store/second-hand clothes and toys are also great for kids. They can get them dirty, mess them up, and grow out of them in two hours without breaking the bank. Mom has saved us loads of money by sending the girls home with endless outfits, shoes, books, and toys. They have had a blast with all of it.

The only downside to this arrangement is that all the stuff starts to add up, especially when combined with indulgent mommy and daddy purchases. The items keep increasing, which tends to explode all over the house until we desperately begin to box the overflow up and pack it into the garage. Now, the garage is overflowing and rapidly becoming unusable…

I realize that having too many toys is what some would call a “first world problem,” but it is a problem, nonetheless. I find myself struggling more and more to pick up exploded toy debris and if I can barely handle it, it’s impossible for a toddler to manage. The situation is getting desperate. I want to take the girls outside more, but keep feeling sucked into a black hole of archived possession upkeep. The more stuff we have, the more unusable it becomes… pieces to a toy set become randomly scattered like a roomful of mismatched puzzle pieces, and what good are toys doing us when they are boxed up in the garage?

Tripping on a pile of toys in the living room and smacking my head on the wall was my rock bottom. I have reached a breaking point. This has to go.

Another huge motivator is that we have decided to move back to Sacramento. When we found out I was pregnant, John and I decided it was time to buy a house. We decided to move to the suburbs in the Rocklin/Roseville area because we could get a lot more house for our money and it seems like a great place to raise a family. Schools are good, crime is low, parking is ample…

After spending a few years out here, however, we have decided to come back. We are city people. We miss our friends and our hangouts. We miss city events, having museums and fun attractions nearby, the ability to walk or bike to farmer’s markets, more diversity, local writer’s groups, and block parties. Discussing the relative merits of the city vs. the suburbs would easily fill its own post, so let me just say that we have decided to move back and move on.

Moving back, however, almost certainly means we will be living in a smaller house. So, we absolutely HAVE to get rid of stuff. I think this is a good thing. Families used to live in smaller houses and were no less happy. Living in less space makes you get outside more. A bigger house means more upkeep, more to clean, and higher bills.

A smaller house will be good for us, I think, but it means my current project is editing our possessions. The past couple of days, I have brought every box of kid clothes, books, and toys in from the garage and begun the painstaking task of sorting through them. It’s difficult, because the kids love every single toy they own and freak out at the thought of losing it. But, someone has to make the tough decisions…

The first round is relatively easy: throw out anything broken, filthy, or incomplete. After that, things get trickier–there are some gems amongst the horde and I don’t want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. One method that has been working well so far is grabbing a handful of toys and putting them on the ground. I let the girls loose while I tool around, running errands and such, and watch them for several hours. If they ignore a toy or don’t stay interested in it for more than 30 seconds, it goes into the “no” pile. We plan to sell the discarded toys and clothes at Once Upon a Child for credit and donate whatever they don’t take to the Salvation Army.

Amidst all this attempted editing, an interesting debate is emerging between my husband and I about controversial toys. What message do certain toys teach your child? What effects, if any, do they have on developing minds and identities? Certain categories have caused lively discussions around the house…

1. Barbie Dolls:  Do Barbie dolls teach little girls a superficial and unattainable beauty standard? They are given ridiculous figures, of course, and marketed to be all about wardrobes, fashion, and being pretty. Do they cause future body anxiety? Do they teach girls that their worth is defined by their appearance?

I can understand this interpretation and appreciate the concern. However, I would argue that none of the girls I knew growing up actually played with Barbie dolls as intended. I don’t know that little girls actually internalize the doll’s physical proportions, or if this does any more damage than the countless billboards, magazines, and other media that already surround growing girls will. Most little girls I knew used Barbie dolls as actress in mini-dramas we would create. There was the thrill of playing an adult, mimicking their dramas and situations, practicing for later dramas and situations, writing scripts. To me, having Barbie dolls doesn’t seem particularly destructive as long as there is a diversity of appearances (hair and eye colors, ethnic backgrounds) in order to counter a homogenous, Aryan ideal.

More eerily, every little girl I knew would at some point mutilate their Barbie dolls by cutting their hair, drawing on them, or otherwise melting or breaking them. I think Barbie dolls eventually become Voodoo dolls.

2.  Domestic Equipment:  It seems that while little boys get games, tools and balls, a lot of girls get equipment involving  domestic work. Little kitchen sets and vacuums let them do pretend work to train them for future actual work. Do little boys pretend to vacuum?

Eh, I’m not big on handing my daughters mini-models of domestic servitude, but cooking stuff is a tougher call. I plan on teaching my daughters to cook, but would also have taught my sons to cook, if I had any. Cooking is a life skill. Everyone needs to eat.

3.  Baby dolls: Along that same train of thought, is it creepy to give little girls baby dolls to feed, change, and push around in strollers? Are we forcing them to be mini-moms before they are even potty-trained? On one hand, Brontë has a baby sister and can mimic the infant care she sees, but on the other hand, boys don’t get baby dolls even though they may be fathers someday.  In this case, it’s an easy call because Brontë isn’t too interested in it.

4.  Plastic snakes: John wanted to throw away Brontë’s plastic snakes because he is afraid she will think it’s safe to play with actual snakes. I disagreed, because by that rationale, we should throw away her teddy bears and other assorted stuffed animals that are dangerous in real life. Plus, she likes her plastic snakes.

I also liked plastic snakes when I was a little girl. And… I guess I did pick up and play with a lot of garter snakes I found in the back yard, so maybe he has a point.

I think our different opinions on the subject have something to do with where we grew up. He grew up in the South, where poisonous snakes are everywhere. In urban California, not so much…

5. Guns:

It’s still too early to worry about, but I desperately wanted a laser tag set when I was a little girl. It sounded so fun. I grew up playing war. We loved GI Joe and Star Wars figures (playing was co-ed) and shot BB guns at targets. This early training might’ve helped me be a better shot when I eventually joined the Army.

John’s parents, however, were staunchly against letting him play with toy guns. They believed it glorified violence and weapons.   One time, a relative got John a toy gun and his father went ballistic.

Again, I can understand their rationale, but did it work? John ended up joining the military. He loved horror movies. He is an avid gamer who loves nothing better than indulging in cartoon carnage on a regular basis. When John and I were dating, he had literally decorated his apartment with bullet cartridges, blowguns, and spent grenades. Military books were everywhere. His movie collection featured “Full Metal Jacket” and zombie apocalypse flicks.

Maybe keeping John away from violence backfired. Maybe weapons became the proverbial forbidden fruit. Or maybe he is innately fascinated by the military and it wasn’t going to matter what he was allowed to play with.

Hmmm… none of this analysis is helping me get rid of crap. I think I will continue laying stuff out and seeing where the girls gravitate.

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